This two-part article takes a high-speed journey through the history of information visualization, mostly by presenting outstanding examples. Part I of the article takes a look at the pre-computer era, while Part II looks at more recent history and discusses the impact of the computer and the Internet on information visualization. It also presents a list of examples from the 1990s that were created with computers; some of these can even be used interactively.
The most extensive retrospect on information visualization can probably be found in Bill Ferster’s 2012 book Interactive Visualization and I therefore refer to it throughout this two-part article. Another source of inspiration was Robert Spence’s book Information Visualization, 2nd edition from 2007 (see references).
Early Examples of Information Visualization
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1487)
Leonardo da Vinci created The Vitruvian Man, a pen and ink drawing on paper, in 1487. The drawing depicts a male figure in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart and simultaneously inscribed in a circle and square. It is accompanied by notes based on the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius, in whose honor the drawing is named. The drawing and text are sometimes also called the Canon of Proportions or, less often, Proportions of Man (text adapted from Wikipedia).
Bill Ferster (2012) writes that this drawing “directly communicated the correlations of the ideal human proportion using the figure of a man circumscribed within a perfect circle” – reason enough for him to use it as the starting point for the history of information visualization.
Figure 1: Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1487) (from Wikipedia)
William Playfair (1759-1823), a Scottish engineer and political economist, is generally considered to be the foundering father of graphical methods of statistics. He invented four chart types. In 1786, he published the first presentation graphics ever – the line graph and bar chart of economic data–and, in 1801, he added the pie chart and circle graph to his toolset, the latter being used to show part-whole relations (text adapted from Wikipedia)
In the 18th century, tables were typically used to present large volumes of quantitative data. Bill Ferster (2012) points out that Playfair’s chart types provided the ability to communicate tabular data quickly, clearly, and in a much more accessible form than the tables themselves.
Figure 2: William Playfair’s bar chart (invented in 1786) (from Wikipedia)
Figure 3: William Playfair’s pie chart (invented in 1801) (from Wikipedia)
William Smith’s First Geological Map of Great Britain (1815)
In 1815, the English geologist William Smith published the first geological map of England, Wales, and southern Scotland. This was the first national-scale geological map, and by far the most accurate of its time. In a book by Simon Winchester, this map was called “the map that changed the world.” Smith’s pivotal insights were that each local sequence of rock strata was a subsequence of a single universal sequence of strata and that these rock strata could be distinguished and traced for great distances by means of embedded fossilized organisms (text adapted from Wikipedia).
Bill Ferster (2012) remarks that, “this remarkable map helped introduce the concept that maps could be used to convey other information aside from geography.”
Figure 4: William Smith’s first geological map of England, Wales, and southern Scotland from 1815: the map that changed the world (from Wikipedia)
John Snow’s Soho Map of Cholera Cases (1854)
A severe outbreak of cholera occurred near Broad Street (now renamed Broadwick Street) in the Soho district of London in 1854, killing hundreds of people in a matter of weeks. Physician John Snow studied the outbreak and discovered that cholera is spread by contaminated water. By talking to local residents, Snow identified the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street. He later used a spot map (see below) to illustrate how cases of cholera were centered around the pump. He also used statistics to illustrate the connection between the quality of the source of water and cholera cases. His studies of the pattern of the disease were convincing enough to persuade the local council to disable the well pump by removing its handle (text adapted from Wikipedia).
Figure 5: John Snow’s map, showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854. The pump is located at the intersection of Broad Street and Cambridge Street (from Wikipedia)
Florence Nightingale’s Coxcomb Chart (1855)
Florence Nightingale was a pioneer in the visual presentation of information and statistical graphics. She used methods such as the pie chart, which had first been developed by William Playfair in 1801 and was a relatively novel method of presenting data at the time. Nightingale is credited with developing a form of the pie chart now known as the “polar area diagram” (or occasionally the “Nightingale rose diagram”), which is equivalent to a modern “circular histogram” and was used to illustrate seasonal sources of patient mortality in the military field hospital she managed. Nightingale called a compilation of such diagrams a “coxcomb”, but later that term would frequently be used for the individual diagrams. She made extensive use of coxcombs to present reports on the nature and magnitude of the conditions of medical care in the Crimean War to Members of Parliament and civil servants who would have been unlikely to read or understand traditional statistical reports (text adapted from Wikipedia).
Figure 6: Florence Nightingale’s coxcomb chart (
Minard was a pioneer of the use of graphics in engineering and statistics and is famous for his Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813, a flow map published in 1869 on the subject of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. The graph displays several variables in a single two-dimensional image:
- The size of the army – providing a strong visual representation of human suffering, for example, the sudden decrease of the army’s size at the crossing of the Berezina river on the retreat;
- The geographical coordinates, latitude and longitude, of the army as it moved;
- The direction that the army was traveling in, both in advance and in retreat, showing where units split off and rejoined;
- The location of the army with respect to certain dates;
- The temperature along the path of the retreat.
Visualization pioneer Edward Tufte states that Minard’s map “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn” and uses it as a prime example in his book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, from 2001 (text adapted from Wikipedia).
Figure 7: Charles Minard’s map of Napoleon’s march to Moscow 1812-1813 (1861) (from Wikipedia)
Harry Beck’s London Underground Map (1931)
Henry Charles Beck (1902-1974), known as “Harry” Beck, was an English engineering draftsman best known for creating the present London Underground map in 1931. Beck drew up the diagram in his spare time while working as an engineering draftsman at the London Underground Signals Office. He ignored the actual distances between stops and the geographic placement of lines, stations, and crossing points in favor of making the map, reminiscent of an electrical wiring system, more usable for passengers and more communicative. London Underground was initially skeptical of Beck’s radical proposal, but tentatively introduced it to the public via a small pamphlet in 1933. The concept was immediately popular and has been adopted all over the world to illustrate traffic networks (text adapted from Wikipedia and Ferster).
Figure 8: Harry Beck’s London Underground map (1931) (from Wikipedia)
American mathematician John Wilder Tukey (1915-2000) developed the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) algorithm and the “box plot” (also known as the ” box-and-whisker plot”) to convey the basic statistical facts of a data set at glance:
- The box height is mapped to the lower and upper quartiles (or first and third quartiles)
- The line within the box shows the median (second quartile)
- If provided, the middle of the box shows the mean average
- If provided, the two whiskers at the top and bottom can have different meanings; for example, they can show the range of the data (minimum and maximum)
(text adapted from Wikipedia and Ferster)
Figure 9: Box-and-whisker plot of data from the Michelson-Morley experiment (Wikipedia), showing outliers, but no mean values
Where to Find Out More…
Most books about [information] visualization take a brief look at the history of the field. The most extensive retrospect can probably be found in Bill Ferster’s 2012 book Interactive Visualization, to which I refer throughout this two-part article. Robert Spence discusses four historic examples (in the sequence of Minard, Nightingale, Snow, and Beck) in the first chapter of his book, Information Visualization, 2nd edition, from 2007, which are all included in the retrospect above.
The reference list below contains inks to Wikipedia articles about the examples presented above. They include detailed information and pointers to further examples. Most of the pictures in this article were taken from Wikipedia and are either used under the fair license agreement or are in the public domain.
Preview of Part II: The Impact of Computers and the Internet
Part II of the article briefly discusses the impact of computers and of the Internet on information visualization. It presents more recent examples of information visualization, mostly from the 1990s, that were created with computers; some of them can even be used interactively.
- Robert Spence(2007). Information Visualization (2nd edition). Prentice-Hall (Pearson) • ISBN: 0132065509 (Hardcover) (Review • Short presentation)
- Bill Ferster (2012). Interactive Visualization: Insight through Inquiry. The MIT Press • ISBN-10: 0262018152, ISBN-13: 978-0262018159 (Review • Short presentation)
- Information Visualization: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_visualization
- Vitruvian Man (Leonardo da Vinci): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvian_Man
- William Playfair: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Playfair
- William Smith: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Geological_map_Britain_William_Smith_1815.jpg
- John Snow: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1854_Broad_Street_cholera_outbreak
- Florence Nightingale: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Nightingale
- Charles Minard: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Joseph_Minard
- Harry Beck: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Beck
- John Tukey: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tukey and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Box_plot